Talking to my Body (1996)

By: Anna Swir
Translated by: Czesław Miłosz, Leonard Nathan
Published by: Copper Canyon Press

At our next meeting we will read poems by Anna Swir, or Anna Świrszczyńska (1909-1984), to give her full name.

Anna Swir was born in Warsaw, Poland, to an artistic though impoverished family. She worked from an early age, supporting herself while she attended university to study medieval Polish literature. In the 1930s she worked for a teachers’ association, served as an editor, and began publishing poetry. Swir joined the Resistance during World War II and worked as a military nurse during the Warsaw Uprising; at one point she came within an hour of being executed before she was spared. In addition to poetry, Swir wrote plays and stories for children and directed a children’s theater. She lived in Krakow from 1945 until her death from cancer in 1984.

I’ve highlighted the most easily available edition of her work in English, Talking to my Body, with translations by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan, but other collections have appeared, including Fat Like the Sun (1986, translated by Margaret Marshment & Grazyna Baran), as well as two versions of Building the Barricade (1979, translated by Magnus Jan Kryński & Robert A. Maguire, and 2011, translated by Piotr Florczyk).

Eight poems from Talking to my Body are available here on the Poetry Foundation website, and a ninth at poets.org here.

Buy online:

Zielony Balonik book club notes:

A critic described her as being ‘not a Rembrandt’, suggesting her work has a limited palette. But she has the skill of creating a scene or a character in just a few lines; her work is artfully artless.

Building the Barricades covers hope, patriotism, defeat and desolation; its downbeat tone meant it was not accepted in communist Poland. It considers the nature of sacrifice, in keeping with the 18th century idea of Poland as the Christ of Nations, suffering for the world. Even though they are terrified, the soldiers of the Home Army see the necessity of building the barricade. In Swir’s poems there is no sense of victimhood, rather dignity and detachment as a way of dealing with loss.

The control in her work creates empathy in the reader. In comparison (as Miłosz notes) American poets are emotionally incontinent. Swir is able to consider even her own death with detachment. She is a poet of the body as well as a metaphysical poet, e.g. A Double Rapture (Talking to My Body, p.126): “Because there is no me / and because I feel / how much there is no me.”

She is a materialist and an idealist, understanding the body as the site of consciousness and the seat of the soul. ‘Listen to your body’, she urges, but what if you don’t understand your body?

Work & transcendence: poems about raking hay and digging potatoes lead to reflections on paradise and eternity, while ‘doing laundry is healthful and useful’.

Realism: descriptions of where she grew up, her father’s studio, poverty and loss, the value of her father painting and her mother singing in themselves, regardless of worldly success or failure.

Ageing: ‘Love with Rucksacks’, haiku-like. Some of these poems, e.g. ‘I am Running on the Beach’ have something of the Holy Fool in them, a Slavic trope. She continues to celebrate older love.

Her idea of freedom is being able to leave whenever she wants, and this informs how she understands and what she wants from love.

There are elements of nursery rhyme in her work, the echoes and repetitions of ‘I am Raking Hay’ (TtMB, p.118), and ‘Two Potatoes’ in BtB.

‘Niemiecki oficer gra Szopena’ / ‘A German officer plays Chopin’ (from BtB – see Jenny’s notes below):
the poem is ambivalent about whether the German officer is humiliating or respecting Polish culture, but it gives the lie to the belief that art and culture are inherently morally good or morally improving. They can be redemptive or therapeutic, but we don’t know what’s going on in his head as he plays among the corpses.

‘Czternastoletnia sanitariuszka myśli zasypiając’ (‘Thoughts of a Fourteen-Year-Old Nurse before sleep’) (from BtB), Magda wrote:
SANITARIUSZKA is translated as ‘nurse’. In Polish ‘nurse’ is ‘pielęgniarka’, while ‘sanitariuszka’ is associated with WWII; to many people it’s associated with Warsaw Uprising, and especially with the song ‘Sanitariuszka Małgorzatka’ sung by ‘powstańcy’ – the insurgents, and by citizens of Wawa. It was composed by Jan Markowski, about a real person and places.

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Before we met, Jenny Roberston sent the comments below on Anna Świrszczyńska’s poem ‘A German officer plays Chopin’.

I didn’t get Talking to my Body, because I prefer to read poems in the original language, if possible, however difficult that is. And it is! For me the ideal is a dual language version.

Świrszczyńska’s poem are devoid of artifice, the language is simple and, especially in Budowałam barykadę, it’s totally pared down. It doesn’t make it any easier to translate, though!

The collection I read is called Wierszem zbawić ludzkość (To save humanity with a poem). If only! It was compiled by Bartosz Małczyński, published by nowy napis, Kraków 2020, and contains introductory material about the poet and her poems. The anthology has a section, ‘Jestem babą’ (‘I’m a female’) which may be the Talking to my Body poems. However, I went back to Budowałam barykadę and chose this rather sinister poem.

Niemiecki oficer gra Szopena
Niemiecki officer
idzie przez umarłe miasto,
dudnią buty
i echo.

Wstępuje do umarłego domu,
drzwi nie ma,
mija na progu ciała
umarłych ludzi.

Podchodzi do fortepianu,
uderza
klawisz.

Dzwięk wypływa oknami bez szyb
na umarłe miasto.
Oficer siada.
Gra Szopena.

A German officer goes through the dead town, his boots and the echo rumble.
He enters a dead house. There’s no door. On the threshold he passes the bodies of dead people.
He goes up to the piano, strikes a key.
The sound flows out to the dead town through glassless windows. The officer sits down. He plays Chopin.

(Not a good translation, but a literal one).

I find that Świrszczyńska’s short poems say so much and, like a haiku, open up a whole universe. I felt that the officer here was mocking the dead and trampling on Polish culture with those thunderous boots. This wasn’t consolatory music. The officer isn’t honouring Poland by choosing to play Chopin, quite the reverse. He’s proclaiming the superiority of the Master Race.

The poem reminded me – as it will others in Zielony Balonik of the film and the book The Pianist. Szpilman published this memoir in 1946 or ’47 with the title Śmierć miasta, The death of the town. The book was quickly withdrawn by the censors, even though Szpilman had erased mention of Ukrainian and Latvian guards and made the German officer who rescued him, Wilhelm Hosenfeld, an Austrian.
Hosenfeld discovered Szpilman in hiding and, hearing that he was a pianist, commanded him to play a battered piano in the bombed out house. Here’s Szpilman’s account as quoted in Wierszem zbawić ludzkość:

My fingers shook when I placed them on the keys. So for a change I had to save my life by playing the piano. I hadn’t practised for two and a half years. My fingers had stiffened, and were covered with a thick layer of dirt, my nails had not been cut since the day the house in which I was hiding had gone on fire. The room where the piano stood had no window pane, like most other rooms in the town and the mechanism had gone mouldy from damp so the keys were very slow to react to the pressure of my fingers. I began to play Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor. The instrument, out of tune, emitted sounds like shattered glass that rang against the empty walls of the flat and the staircase, and echoed hushed and sorrowfully among the ruins of the little houses across the street. When I had finished the silence dominating the town became even more hollow and ghostly.

Hosenfeld was a truly good man, never mind a ‘good German.’ He saved other people besides Szpilman, was captured by the Soviets and died a terrible death in around 1955, beaten so often that he no longer knew who he was or why he was being beaten. However, after the film, and after the book, in 2007 he was awarded the Cross of the Rebirth of Poland and, two years later this family received the medal Righteous among the Gentiles. A plaque was unveiled in the house where Szpilman had played Chopin among the ruins, children of Szpilman and Hosenfeld were present at the ceremony.

All this from a short poem! Have a good discussion, everyone.

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